My Father Is Gone

Actually, my father was almost always gone.

My father, Andrew Lawrence Lester, married my mother, Dorothy Beth Hollingsworth, in 1940. They had met at Whittier College and were each 20 years old.  I was born in 1943 while Dad was in the Navy. Although he was stationed near where we lived (Long Beach, CA, where I was born in the Navy Hospital), he often traveled in his job inspecting production of planes in factories. He sometimes traveled for a week to places like China Lake where new weapons were being tested.  He’d wanted to fly, or to go to sea, but they used his technical talents where they were needed, plus his eyes weren’t good enough to be a pilot in combat. When he was discharged in 1945 he traveled selling cameras for a year or so, all over the western US. I have postcards and letters from him from places like Boise and Winnemucca.

In the summer of 1946 we moved to Phoenix, AX, a pretty small town in the desert at the time. At first, Dad sold Cushman motor scooters in the Phoenix area and was home most of the time.  In the later 40s he traveled more and while he was away from Phoenix he was unfaithful to Mom. They got divorced about 1949 and he lived and worked in El Paso, Texas, for a while. Within two years he realized the error of his ways and Mom and Dad were remarried.  The birth of the twins in 1953 cemented the relationship again. During the early 50s Dad managed the Arizona Wholesale Photo Supply in Phoenix and was home regularly. Almost every Saturday I went to work with him and stocked shelves with film and did other odd jobs in the store (I was 8, 9, and 10).  Those were good times, as I was given a dollar to go down the street to get lunch. Since I could get an egg salad sandwich and a chocolate milk shake for 45 cents, the remainder was my pay for the day.

In 1954 Dad starting selling large cameras for Graflex, which involved traveling around the midwest. This meant we needed to move and he and Mom investigated moving to Omaha, Kansas City, or Des Moines, while a baby sitter took care of the six of us. They settled on Des Moines and we moved there over the summer of 1954. Mom and the other 5 kids flew to Des Moines. One of the best bonding experiences Dad and I ever had was that summer of 1954 when we traveled together from Phoenix to Des Moines in the company’s 1953 Ford sedan. We spent ten days together, much in the car, and much in hotel rooms listening to the radio and playing with HO gauge model trains. While he was visiting camera stores to encourage them to stock the large Graflex press cameras he was selling (think Jimmy Olson in old Superman films) I would walk around the town, get myself lunch and go to a movie if there was time, and just explore the various towns we visited in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa. I would know where and when to meet him so we could go on to the next town. There was no worry about anything bad happening to me at all. I was just another 11 year old kid walking around town. I kept a diary of the ten day trip, with a number of pages per day, logging how far we went, where we went, what I saw, and so forth.  Unfortunately it was lost somewhere along the way in the last 60 years. I’d give a lot to have it now.

When we lived in Des Moines from 1954-58 Dad still traveled most of the time. I was able to travel with him several summers for a couple weeks at a time, but for some reason none of those are as memorable as the “moving to Iowa” trip. I didn’t keep logs on those trips, either. He would be gone about 5 weeks out of 6, though usually never more than two weeks at a time, driving all over Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Back at home we helped by doing things like mailing postcards to hotels and to camera stores. He had pre-mimeographed postcards saying “I would like a room the night of ________” for the hotels and “I’ll be visiting you on ___________ and hope to see about __________ AM/PM to show you my latest cameras”.  We would fill them out from an itinerary he prepared for each trip, fill in the blanks appropriately, and send them for him.  It made us (Diana and me) feel like we were important helpers, which we were. As Mom was teaching full time she didn’t have time to do any of it.

In Des Moines when he was home I often worked with him in the basement, either in the darkroom helping to develop and print pictures taken by either of us, or in the workshop building furniture. I still have the two dressers and two bedside cabinets that I helped him make from real mahogany in our basement. I learned to use the drill press, table saw, and hand tools, but mostly helped handle large boards and did tons of sanding to put a beautiful finish on the furniture. He and Mom used that furniture, as well as a long-gone headboard for a double bed and a mirrored dresser, and I ultimately inherited it. It will go to one of my children if s/he wants it.  After almost 60 years it is still solid and in good shape. Again, those were good times, working together.

In 1958 we moved again, this time to Dolton, one of the south suburbs of Chicago. Dad had been promoted to work out of the Chicago office and his amount of traveling was greatly reduced, as there were so many stores in the Chicago/Milwaukee area that most sales calls could be done without staying away overnight.  A few trips to Wisconsin or eastern Iowa might take him away a few days, but not for long. We spent a lot of time working together, with some help from the other kids, finishing the bare basement in the new house he had bought. First we built in a bedroom for me, followed by a family room with a wall of cabinets, a workshop, a laundry area, and a darkroom. We also worked together in the darkroom developing pictures and listening to the police and fire radio scanner.

In the summer of 1960, the night before he was to go to the hospital for some ulcer tests, he and I had an argument about something, undoubtedly something trivial, and we each pushed each other around without hitting. I said “I hate you. I wish you were dead.” and went to my room.  He went to the hospital in the morning before I woke up. I never saw him again.  Three days later he was dead.

Despite all the things we did together that I described above, and many more I didn’t, I always remember that he was gone. Just gone. And is until I see him again. And he won’t ever be gone again.

 

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